Border Wall

Constructing a border wall was one of President Trump’s signature campaign promises when he ran for president. This guide examines the barrier, its costs and impact, and the surrounding political climate.

Jun 23, 2022
| Published:
Jun 23, 2022
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President Trump’s bout for border security culminated in one of the most contentious campaign promises: Build that Wall. The border wall became a staple of Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign. The border wall is a pop-culture symbol and Republican rally chant, but what exactly does the wall look like? What is it made of, and how is it being paid for?


Bracero Program (1942-1964)

Following World War II, the United States and Mexican government signed a formal agreement that extended the Mexican Agricultural Labor Program (MALP). Commonly referred to as the “Bracero Program,” MALP matched seasonal agricultural workers from Mexico with approved American employers. From 1951 to 1964, hundreds of thousands of agricultural workers entered the country as non-immigrant laborers to fill labor shortages created by the war.

Operation “Wetback” (1953-54)

National concerns regarding employment for returning soldiers and uncontrolled migration across the southern border inspired the Immigration Bureau to crack down on Mexican immigrants in the United States. Even as the Bracero program continued to recruit temporary workers from Mexico to fill labor shortages in agriculture, the poorly-named Operation Wetback enabled the Immigration Bureau to arrest many Mexican nationals and deport them. The Bureau claimed to have deported up to one million Mexican citizens that year.

Flores Settlement Agreement (FSA) (1997)

The Flores Settlement Agreement originates from Reno v. Flores, a Circuit Court case wherein an immigrant minor, Jenny Flores, was detained alongside adults. In early 1997, President Clinton signed the FSA to resolve over a decade of “Flores” immigration cases stemming from 1985 Flores v. Meese. The FSA’s significant points include:

  1. The government must release children “without unnecessary delay” to the children’s parents, legal guardians, other adult relatives, or another individual designated by the parents/guardians.
  2. The government will put children in the “least restrictive” setting appropriate.
  3. The government will create and implement standards for the care and treatment of immigrant children in detention.

The FSA remains the primary legislation mandating child-parent separations and “catch-and-release” policies. Several Republicans, most notably Ted Cruz (R-Texas), called on Congress to suspend the FSA in favor of other legislation. In 2019, President Trump and 20 states filed legal challenges for and against the FSA.

Enhanced Border Entry and Visa Entry Reform Act (2002)

This bill authorized the hiring of additional Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) investigators, expanded screening procedures, and increased the capacity of tracking deportable aliens within the United States.

Homeland Security Act (2003)

The Homeland Security Act was signed in 2002 and disbanded the INS on March 1, 2003. Congress split the INS into three new federal agencies under the newly-formed Department of Homeland Security.

ATF Gun-Running Scandal (2009-2011)

Between 2009 and 2011, the Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms, and Tobacco (ATF) ran a series of sting operations over the Southern Border. In what became known as Operation Fast and Furious, the ATF purposely allowed licensed firearms dealers to sell weapons to illegal straw buyers, hoping to track the guns to Mexican drug cartel leaders and arrest them. Guns tracked by the ATF were found at crime scenes on both sides of the Southern Border and the scene of United States Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry’s murder in December 2010. The gun-running program assisted in 170 crimes in Mexico alone.

Government Shutdown (2019)

In February 2019, after the longest government shutdown in history (35 days), Congress reached a deal with President Trump, offering $1.375 billion for 55 miles of fencing along the Rio Grande Valley. The President expressed his dissatisfaction with the offer, and shortly after signing the bill, declared a national emergency to fund his border wall through other means. In addition to the $1.375 billion already allocated for fencing, he announced his intent to pull $600 million from the Treasury Department’s Drug Forfeiture Fund, $2.5 billion from the Department of Defense’s Drug Interdiction program, and $3.6 billion from the Department of Defense’s military construction account. An additional $1.5 billion in Department of Defense funds were transferred in May 2019.

Border Wall

What is the border wall? How long is it? What is it made of? 

  • According to the Congressional Research Service, the Mexico–United States barrier, also known as the border wall, is a series of vertical barriers along the Mexico–United States border intended to reduce illegal immigration to the United States from Mexico.
  • According to BBC News, Before Trump took office, there were 654 miles (just over 1,000km) of barrier along the southern border - made up of 354 miles of barricades to stop pedestrians and 300 miles of anti-vehicle fencing.
  • According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), as of October 2020, there are 669 miles of “primary barrier” – the first structure people heading from Mexico to the U.S. will encounter – and 65 miles of “secondary barrier” – which usually runs behind the primary wall as a further obstacle – along the southern border. In total, the Trump administration added 80 miles of new barriers and also upgraded numerous sections.
  • Much of the current wave (2016-present) of construction is 18-30ft (5.4-9m) reinforced bollard fencing (steel beams). This design allows border agents to look through the wall and adjust to prevent large groups from crossing the border at a given time. In addition, anti-climb features ensure that migrants reach a legal point of entry where officials can stop human trafficking and begin the process of legal immigration.

How is it being paid for?

  • Since the creation of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in 2003, the federal government has spent an estimated $333 billion on the agencies that carry out immigration enforcement.
  • Between 2016 and 2020, just over $5 billion in funding has come via traditional means through the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, but Trump also ordered almost $10 billion in Department of Defense (DoD) funding.

Has the border wall affected immigration? 

  • Under President Trump, the number of undocumented immigrants reached a decade low. Whether this is due to additional segments of the border wall or a series of immigration reforms is unknown.

The barrier is unlikely to stop most kinds of drugs from coming into the U.S. 

  • Strengthening and extending the border barrier is unlikely to do much to reduce illegal drugs - such as heroin, cocaine, and methamphetamine - because most come through established border checkpoints, known as ports of entry.
  • While most of the heroin in the U.S. does come from Mexico, the Drug Enforcement Administration says most of it is hidden in privately owned vehicles or transporter lorries, mixed with other goods, and smuggled through legal entry points.

Political perspectives on the southern border

  • An NPR/Ipsos poll found that partisan fault lines begin to emerge surrounding the influx of immigrants at the Southern Border. For example, most Democrats (63%) favor providing resources to El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras to curb Central American immigration (just 37% of Republicans agree). On the other side, three-quarters of Republicans (76%) support building a wall or fence along the entirety of the border – something only one in five Democrats favor.

Discussion Questions

  1. Why do you think the border wall did not receive full funding?
  2. How significant of a role do you believe the border wall played in reducing illegal crossings? 
  3. Despite 654 miles of existing barriers on the border before President Trump, it has become an extremely partisan issue within the last few years. Why do you think this is?


Learn More


Left Narrative

Expanding the border wall is a divisive misuse of taxpayer dollars. President Trump abused the project, taking away far too much funding from other departments to pay for it, including the Pentagon and the Department of Defense’s drug interdiction program. Border expansion efforts and the narratives around them put local communities at risk and risk ruining the United State’s relationship with Mexico.

Right Narrative

The Border Patrol requires a physical barrier to prevent illegal border crossings. Officers also need to see through the barrier to watch for large gatherings and potential breaches; this means slates with anti-climb technology are most effective. Without a robust physical barrier, illegal immigrants will continue to cross into the United States, and traffickers will continue to smuggle people across the border.

Bipartisan Narrative

The Border Patrol requires a physical barrier to prevent illegal border crossings. Officers also need to see through the barrier to watch for large gatherings and potential breaches; this means slates with anti-climb technology are most effective. Without a robust physical barrier, illegal immigrants will continue to cross into the United States, and traffickers will continue to smuggle people across the border.


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Classroom Content

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